My first experience in international travel was during the George W. Bush Administration. My younger brother and I backpacked through Europe for a month in the summer of 2005.
In the event you don’t recall much about that year, it was the one when we learned that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq, negating both the reason we invaded and the loss of life on both sides. It was the year that Bush used a recess appointment to name John Bolton to be UN Ambassador – a guy who claimed there was no such thing as the UN and once said that “all international laws are invalid, meaningless attempts to constrict American power.” It was the year that Pfc. Lyndie England was convicted of torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
It was not our finest hour. The international community did not much like or respect George W. Bush, and that bled into a dislike for all Americans.
I remember standing on a subway platform in Paris that summer when a woman approached me to ask for directions. I smiled, apologized, said I wasn’t from the area. Her eyes widened, shock rippling over her body. “You’re an American,” she said. “Don’t hold it against me,” I replied, “I didn’t vote for him.” She couldn’t get away from me fast enough.
In Munich, while we were standing in front of the Never Again memorial at the Dachau Concentration Camp, I overheard a British woman say to her friends, “Never again…unless you’re an American.” They all laughed and called Americans “evil imperialists.”
By the time we got to Rome I had developed a sense of humor about it. When the Ukranian woman heard our accents and rolled her eyes in disgust, spewing, “Ugh. Americans,” I put on my wryest smile and replied, “Well, we’re not gonna be friends.” At least she laughed.
The only bright spot was a Canadian couple we met in Florence who told us they’d been defending Americans everywhere they went. “Americans are really nice, generous, caring people,” they’d tell anyone who disparaged us. I am still grateful for those two.
That was 2005 and my brother and I were only overseas for a month. Tomorrow, R and I are getting on a plane destined for Portugal. We’ll be outside the U.S. for at least six months. I thought it couldn’t get much worse than traveling during the Bush Administration, but my country just elected Donald Trump as President of the United States.
Only 57 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot in this election, and of those less than half voted for Trump. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump took the White House. A full 43 percent of us sat at home and did nothing. To say I am disappointed is an understatement. I am terrified for the nation and for humanity. We elected a game show host to the highest office in the land. A narcissistic, bigoted, racist, sexist, nuclear proliferation supporting game show host with precisely zero experience governing.
Even if Trump accomplishes nothing, his awful, fear-mongering rhetoric will once again set the international community’s teeth on edge. What shall we do?
I can tell you with certainty that most of the people who voted for Trump don’t give a shit about what the international community thinks about us. That’s their prerogative. But I care. I care not just for selfish reasons (I mean, of course we worry about our safety). I care because we’re all part of the same human community. We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down.
My friends want me to do something to explain who we really are to the people we meet. But I don’t know where to find those two Canadians, and anyway I doubt they’d be willing to be seen with us after what just happened.
So, after a lot of thought, I have decided that instead of trying to explain this I will be asking for advice. Many of the countries on our itinerary have been around a lot longer than the U.S. They’ve seen tyrants and tycoons, impostors and criminals. They might be able to teach us something.
What do you think, dear readers? What shall we do?